For seven weeks this fall, Don Leyland has travelled from his home in Hawkeston, Ont., to Princess Margaret Hospital in Toronto for treatment of head and neck cancer.
Every Monday morning, a volunteer driver from the Canadian Cancer Society has been picking him up at the door, chauffeuring him for almost two hours through commuter traffic to get to his radiation appointment, then making the same trip in reverse on Friday evening. All at no charge.
"It's an unbelievable service delivered by incredible people," said his spouse, Marion Leyland.
But she fears that when her husband's next scheduled appointment rolls around on Dec. 22, no driver will be available: The stipend for volunteer drivers has just been cut to 25 cents a kilometre from 35 cents, a money-saving move that has sparked anger among drivers and patients.
"Can you imagine trying to run your car on 25 cents a kilometre in this day and age?" said Ruth Loverock, who co-ordinates volunteer drivers for the cancer society in the Muskoka-North Simcoe district. (By comparison, the Ontario government reimburses employees 40 cents a kilometre when they use their own vehicles to travel for work.)
"I'm really afraid I'm going to lose some drivers because of this," she said.
Ms. Loverock notes that most of the volunteer drivers are seniors on limited incomes, and often cancer survivors themselves. "They already give a lot of time, and now we're asking them to pay to run their cars too."
Martin Kabat, CEO of the cancer society's Ontario division, said he understands that the decision to cut the reimbursement is unpopular, but hopes drivers and patients will understand the reasoning.
In these tough economic times, charitable donations are down and money is tight. The volunteer driver program costs the Ontario district about $6-million a year, virtually all of it for mileage reimbursement and parking. (A similar program is offered in some other provinces, but on a much smaller scale.)
Mr. Kabat said a number of options were considered, including cutting the number of patients eligible for the service, limiting the number of kilometres they can travel, charging patients for the service and reducing the mileage payment."We decided the only choice was the one that did not affect patients," Mr. Kabat said. "But I'll be honest with you: This was the best of a number of bad options."
The hope, he said, is that the cut will be temporary and the shortfall will be made up with donations or a corporate sponsor.
There are about 2,800 volunteer drivers in the program. They serve about 16,000 patients annually - bringing some from as far away as Thunder Bay to Toronto - driving more than 13 million kilometres in total.
To date, about 80 drivers have left the program because of the reduction of the mileage rate, Mr. Kabat said. Despite the blow, he vowed that no patient who needs to travel for cancer care will be left behind.
Research done by the cancer society shows that about 20 per cent of patients who use the service would otherwise not go for treatment.
That was the case with Mr. Leyland. The treatment for head and neck cancer can be debilitating - including extreme fatigue, nausea and vomiting, loss of voice and difficulty swallowing.
"There is no way we could travel by bus," his wife said. And while Ms. Leyland can drive, the idea of navigating downtown Toronto with her sick spouse at her side was unthinkable.
"I'm 76 years old and my husband is 79," she said. "The trauma of cancer treatment is bad enough; adding the stress of driving to that would be too much."
Ms. Leyland said she would rather pay for the service than see the volunteers suffer. After all, she noted, other cancer society services come at a price: For example, during treatment she and her husband stay at a lodge for the modest sum of $60 a week.
Ms. Leyland said she understands money is tight, but believes the cancer society doesn't have its priorities straight. "I simply can't fathom how they can justify this decision. For a lot of these volunteers 10 cents really makes a difference."
Mr. Kabat said the society understands that. "We're so grateful to our volunteers. We're not nickel-and-diming anyone here," he said. "The bottom line is we will fix this."